Rabbi Benzion Shafier
Klal Perspectives, The Ben Torah Baal Habayis
To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.
A Successful Model: Tiferes Bochurim – A Misgeres for Growth
While on a pleasant Shabbos afternoon stroll shortly after our family moved to Monsey, I bumped into a former talmid (student). Our relationship had been rather close, so it was delightful to re-connect and to observe this young married man maturing and establishing himself and his family. Since the young man had been a very serious academic, in the course of our pleasantries, as a rebbe is apt to do, I inquired about his “learning.” His response was jarring. “The learning?” His voice lowered with a hint of embarrassment “It’s not going…”
“What do you mean?” I asked. He mumbled. “I am not really learning much at all.” I was disappointed and quite taken aback.
In the following years, I discovered that this young man’s abandonment of Torah study upon leaving yeshiva was not unusual at all. Even those who were the most serious masmidim (i.e., constantly studying) while in yeshiva often allow Torah studies to dwindle, if not lapse entirely, during their transition into baalei batim. Sadly, the cessation of Torah learning is merely one manifestation of an overall decline in focus on religious growth and connection. I also learned that this critical cohort of Torah Judaism is not at all pleased or comfortable with this reduction in their focus on Yiddishkeit, nor do they even fully understand its cause – other than that they are overburdened, distracted, and tired most of the time. They did not anticipate a reduced connection to Torah in their adult lives, and now struggle with how it can be changed.
I also discovered that, with the exception of certain specific kehilos, aside from the daf yomi movement, there has been relatively little communal effort expended to address the loftier ruchniyus (spiritual) needs of this community segment, and little creativity has been invested in this effort.
As the magnitude of this challenge became increasingly clear, I began to learn that many Bnai Torah entering the workforce fail to realize that the transitionary experience they are going through is shared by many others with identical ruchniyus aspirations. Perhaps they are living within a community where few follow their path, or working in an environment with few other frum people or with those who have dissimilar objectives.
This sense of isolation is often accompanied by a profound sense of loneliness, which often translates into frustration and can sometimes even develop into a destructive influence. It dampens the individual’s capacity for passion and turns each attempt to grow in Torah into a burden and an uphill battle. The former masmid finds his commitment to keviyas itim l’Torah (keeping set times for Torah study) wavering, his attention to halachic detail lessening, and his overall self-image as a Ben Torah being diminished. For some, this extends beyond religion and even negatively impacts effectiveness at work and/or at home. This loneliness underlies many of the challenges that Bnai Torah encounter in their experiences outside yeshiva.
This loneliness can be better understood when considering the social dynamics that play out as a student leaves yeshiva. While in yeshiva, the student engages in his davening, learning and personal growth while surrounded by a support network comprised of similar-minded young men, sharing significant commonality of background and interests. The current wide variety of available yeshivos further increases the likelihood that a young man’s classmates will most likely reflect his cultural and philosophical orientation.
Life decisions facing a yeshiva student, such as selection of a yeshiva, whether to pursue college and when to begin dating, are all significantly informed by his environment and the choices made by his peers. Leaving the koslei beis hamedrash (confines of the yeshiva) and going to work is, therefore, not merely a change in daily regiment and a reorientation away from an almost exclusive focus on Torah and ruchniyus, but is also a departure from the social misgeres (framework) of like-minded friends. While in yeshiva, this misgeres had been essential to his spiritual growth – and it is suddenly lost upon his departure, with no apparent replacement available.
My Rebbe and Rosh HaYeshiva, R’ Henoch Leibowitz, z”l, had the wisdom to understand this phenomena and the vision to address it. The Rosh Yeshiva once shared with me that he had repeatedly observed yeshiva graduates entering the workforce only to get lost spiritually in a short period of time. Not only were they no longer intimately associated with a yeshiva, they also failed to replace that connection by identifying with a shul or kehilla. Consequently, they lost their invaluable anchor. Then he said to me the words that still echo in my mind: “I want you to start a Tiferes Bochurim.” I had never heard the name Tiferes Bochrim, and had no idea what the Rosh Yeshiva was referring to.
The Rosh Yeshiva proceeded to explain how, in pre-war Europe, poverty forced many yeshiva students to enter the workforce at an extremely young age. An organization named Tiferes Bochurim was formed to provide a social network for these young fellows. They would learn together, socialize together, and become a chevra (peer group). The chevra dynamic sustained them, facilitated their spiritual growth and provided a support system by which they could manage life’s challenges, whether financial, familial or spiritual. The Rosh Yeshiva felt that in today’s environment, young Bnai Torah in the workplace – whether married or single – desperately needed an organization of this type.
For the next several years, I endeavored to actualize the Rosh Yeshiva’s vision. He did not merely contemplate the scheduling of shiurim and chaburos (classes and study groups), though both were key elements. He also envisioned the establishment of a frum “social club” whose participants could identify with each other and which would serve as a misgeres for them that was comparable to a yeshiva, filling a gaping void and facilitating continued growth.
With that general outline, I began an experiment that, while it is no longer operating, for a time helped yeshivaleit entering the workforce combat religious complacency and loneliness.
I began by giving a weekly shmuz (talk) in Monsey to a group of young, working yeshiva graduates (including the talmid I referred to earlier). At the conclusion of the first shiur, the participants stuck around to socialize. In time, the Shmuz became a forum for participants to share their experiences and aspirations (or lack thereof) as well as their challenges. The shiur progressed, attendance grew, and the time we spent together after the shmuz became as important to the attendees as the shmuz itself. Based on the shailos (practical questions) being presented to me, I realized how much the participants were in need of a rebbe to serve as a moreh derech (personal guide) in spiritual matters and in life, generally.
After actualizing my Rebbe’s concept as best I could, I came to more fully appreciate his vision. The key is establishing a misgeres for working yeshiva alumni that is in sync with its target audience. It must create a social context where the challenges of life can be shared and addressed, and not merely a topic for lectures about mussar or machshava (Jewish thought). Success can be measured by whether each individual stops feeling like he is out there alone, but rather becomes part of something bigger, and begins to identify with individuals with similar challenges, as well as similar goals in Torah and Yiras Shomayim (fear of Heaven).
The first step toward establishing such groups (which are flourishing in London) in major Jewish communities around the country would be the identification of a Rav who is able to relate to working yeshiva alumni. This Rav would create a program that includes a shiur/shmuz, and a safe environmment for discussions about parnassa, family life and Yiddishkeit. It is critical that the environment be non-judgmental, and that yeshiva alumni feel part of something that can be transformative and enjoyable. Participants will quickly realize that their growth in ruchniyus need not come to a dead end upon leaving yeshiva.
I conclude with two cautions. First is, to steal a phrase, “da lifnei mi atoh omed” – know your audience. The standard yeshiva alumnus has spent a minimum of fifteen years, and sometimes morein Torah schools and yeshivas. The classical approaches employed by kiruv programs are simply inappropriate for fellows who started learning Eilu Metzios in 5th grade and have spent time grappling with R’ Akiva Eiger’s kashyas (analytical questions). On the other hand, a classical yeshiva mode may also be alienating, since many former yeshiva students may no longer have a meaningful relationship with Hashem. While they daven and learn every day, and perform mitzvos in the regular course of life, these activities are typically not pursued as expressions of a serious ruchniyus connection, but rather reflect the mode of behavior that they have chosen to adopt
Consequently, the substance of a shiur must be sophisticated, as befitting the participants’ extensive learning experience, but it must also be presented with language and terminology that is familiar and comfortable to those ensconced in open society and popular culture. There must be a “no-pressure” atmosphere, but one that also encourages and allows for the internalization of the ideals of bitachon and emunah (trust and faith in G-d).
Despite the outward appearance of integration into the frum community, yeshiva graduates often struggle with “why am I a Jew? What is the purpose of my life? What does Hashem want of me when sending me difficult challenges, whether spiritual or material?” Shiurim should tackle the fundamental aspects of hashkafah (a Torah outlook), and be presented in a way that is both sophisticated and accessible. Participants must be able to easily relate to the content of all presentations, and the messages must be expressed through real life examples and contemporary experiences.
The second caution is the importance of engaging the wives of the participants. In most instances, wives who observe a profound spiritual transformation in their husbands crave to share in the growth. It is irresponsible to engender serious growth among men while neglecting to address simultaneously the growth of their wives. It istherefore highly advisable that parallel shiurim be arranged for women that cater to their unique challenges, both spiritual and familial. Shabbos retreats would provide wives the opportunity to develop closer relationships with other women who, along with their husbands, are experiencing growth as a couple.
In pre-war Europe, Tiferes Bochurim re-created aspects of the yeshiva experience for those who needed a spiritual home away from home. In contemporary America, yeshiva alumni face deep challenges, and similarly need such an environment, in which individuals can become part of a community with like-minded young men, learning and growing in Torah, and enjoying and benefitting from a frum social network. Our young men will no longer feel that they just survived another day – they will know that they are developing a life of meaning and spiritual growth.